I Come From…

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The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

Here is a simple prompt that can be useful for generating lots of specific detail—memories, images, family history—that can then be mined for creative writing work. I made this list a while back, in 2005. Maybe it’s time for me to revisit this prompt again!

I come from…

A small town in the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania (the northern edge of Appalachia), a place few people leave—three, four generations in the same town, family members on the same street, even next door—and only poor people move to.

A Welsh grandmother who baked cookies on a black cast iron griddle and made tiny Jackie Kennedy suits for my 1959 Barbie with the platinum bubble cut and Irish great-grandparents who fled County Mayo to run a pub in London where my Irish grandmother was born.

One grandfather who was a stone mason and the other (who died before I was born) was a coal miner and a drunk. A grandmother who worked as a switchboard operator for a utility company after her husband, the drunken coal-miner, died.

Relatives who lived together in a single-family house—at one time, my grandmother and her husband and children, her mother, her spinster sister, her retarded brother, relatives who still had outhouses in the 1970s.

A father who was spared a Catholic upbringing when his mother, my grandmother, insisted he and my aunt attend her church and a mother who never learned to ride a bike, hates to use public bathrooms, and refuses to drive a car. Parents who met in church and married at the ages of 21 and 19.

A family where everyone talks at the same time during holiday dinner.

Culm banks, mine fires, underground tunnels, cave-ins.

The smell of sulfur and the headache you got because of coal burning round-the-clock in the furnace, October until May.

Coal ashes used to break up ice on sidewalks, give car tires traction in the snow.

Rag rugs, pulley clotheslines, clothes sewn at home and of course handed down.

The Susquehanna River, too polluted to fish or swim when I was coming of age.

Easter bonnets and velvet Christmas dresses, wrist-length gloves that smothered each finger, fur muffs, black patent leather shoes with slippery soles and straps.

Piano lessons at Wyoming Seminary School of Music and recitals with the Easter bonnets and white gloves.

Reading books as escape from family fighting and the ever-present television—Ed Sullivan, Disney and the Hallmark Hall of Fame, Dark Shadows and the Dialing for Dollars movie after school.

Christian summer camp in the Endless Mountains where my first kiss was a Black boy from Philadelphia who taught me to dance the Bump.

A flood the summer before my senior year that washed away holiday ornaments, family photos, all our childhood board games because we forgot to take them upstairs.

Transformation thanks to a college in hill-free Ohio where I fell in with vegetarians and organic farmers, with pot heads and ne’er do wells, many of whom had trust fund safety nets.

Love with a boy who looked like a girl and couldn’t love me back until eighteen years later because way back then he had decided he could only love boys.

Dropping out of college to trail the boy who preferred boys.

Living like a character and as if life were a novel —lost weekends, wild, howling-at-the-moon nights, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Unplanned pregnancy and then marriage to the father and having a baby—born the month I was supposed to graduate college‚then divorce two years later, at 24.

Welfare and food stamps, WIC vouchers and rusted-out cars that barely work, scholarships and loans to finish college, welfare and the Ivy League, in Ithaca, New York.

Cornell University where close to twenty years I worked at jobs I mostly hated and where I learned to have nothing but disdain for incompetence, bureaucracy and overpaid self-promoting nincompoops.

The Coast Range woods of western Oregon where I live below the dominant culture’s radar, blessed by liberation from the 9 to 5. Where I remain, as always, motivated by the desire to live an authentic and compassionate life.

The public domain image above is a postcard manufactured by The Mebane Greeting Card Company of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania between 1930 and 1935. All of the cards in the series are called “Coal mining in the Anthracite Region, Pennsylvania.” This particular one features a colliery in Nanticoke just south of my hometown of Plymouth.

Nancy Flynn
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